Dissociative Depersonalization Disorder: Definition, Causes and Treatment

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  • 0:09 Depersonalization Disorder
  • 0:49 Diagnosis
  • 3:21 Causes & Treatment
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Imagine what it would be like to be outside your body, watching your own life like a movie. In this lesson, we'll look at the symptoms, causes, and treatments of a psychological disorder that's just like that: dissociative depersonalization disorder.

Depersonalization Disorder

Alec has a big problem. He regularly feels like he is separate from his body. During these episodes, he feels like he's floating above himself, watching what he does and says, but he does not feel like he's actually a part of his life.

Alec might be suffering from depersonalization disorder, a psychological disorder in which a person feels disconnected from his or her body or mind. Depersonalization disorder is one of several dissociative disorders, or psychological disorders that involve a disruption in personality or perception. Let's look closer at the diagnosis, causes, and treatment of depersonalization disorder.


Let's imagine for a moment that you are a psychologist and Alec comes to see you. He's upset about feeling like he's not part of his body. You think he might have depersonalization disorder, but you need a little bit more information before you can diagnose him.

Psychologists use a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short, to help them diagnose patients with mental disorders. The DSM is on its fifth edition, but the one most commonly used is the DSM-IV. When you open up your DSM-IV, you see a checklist of symptoms that must be met for each psychological disorder. Flipping to the page for depersonalization disorder, you see that the symptoms are:

1. Persistent or recurrent feelings of being detached from one's body or mind.

People with depersonalization disorder often describe feeling like they are in a dream, or feeling out of it. Alec feels like he's floating above himself and observing, as opposed to being in his body and acting, so he meets this criterion.

2. Reality testing remains intact.

Reality testing is simply the way that people come to the conclusion of what is real in the world around them. A person with hallucinations, for example, might not be able to determine what is real and what isn't, but a person with depersonalization disorder is able to figure out what's real in the world around them. Alec has no problems distinguishing real from imagined, so he meets this criterion, too.

3. The symptoms cause distress or impairment.

Someone who is impaired cannot function normally in some part of their life, like work or social situations. Meanwhile, distress is any kind of emotional reaction, including anger, sadness, or despondency. Remember that Alec is upset because of his condition, so he meets the criterion for distress.

4. The symptoms are not part of another disorder.

There are other psychological disorders and mental illnesses that might make people feel like they are detached from themselves. But if a patient has another disorder or illness that could explain the symptoms, they are not diagnosed with depersonalization disorder as well.

But, there doesn't seem to be anything else wrong with Alec. He's healthy and doesn't have any other symptoms, so we can't diagnose him with something else. But, since he meets all four criteria, we can diagnose him with depersonalization disorder.

Causes and Treatment

If it seems a little odd for someone to feel like they aren't attached to his or her body, that's because, well, it is. Statistically, not very many people develop depersonalization disorder, but those who do have some things in common that help psychologists guess about the causes of the disorder.

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